How Young is Too Young for Internet Safety?

by Kim Hays

How Young is Too Young for Internet Safety?

Kinds as young as 5 should be given lessons in how to use the internet safely, say some experts

My 5-year-old son is obsessed with Star Wars Legos, and ever since he discovered the games and videos on the product website, he begs to play. I’ll admit I don’t really want to sit there and watch him wield his pretend lightsaber. So I give him a 20-minute time limit and walk away. The thought of what he might accidentally encounter online has barely crossed my mind. Until now.

British charity ChildLine is urging that kids as young as 5 be taught Internet safety, telling the BBC that the issue is an “e-safety time bomb” and “one of the biggest child protection issues of our time.” The charity says its helpline received almost 4,000 calls about online and cell-phone abuse just last year, with the majority of calls coming from kids 12 to 15 years old. And there was a 70 percent spike in calls about Internet pornography, some from kids as young as 11.

Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe, pediatrician and author of Cybersafe, says that while the British charity is indulging in a bit of fear-mongering, we can and should be teaching kids “how to look out for issues, what to do when issues arise and, most importantly, how to avoid issues.”

“This is no different that how we teach our kids to be safe in the nondigital part of the world,” O’Keefe says. We don't teach them to be fearful of crossing the street or driving a car or cooking in the kitchen because we teach them the skills needed to negotiate those spaces and do so over time. Similarly, we teach them how to interact with people safely and smartly and how to manage strangers, bullies, etc.”

As for starting young, O’Keefe says she’s all for it. Here’s her advice on how to handle online safety with kids as young as 5:

  • Use the computer with your child. Talk them through the experience. “Mommy is sending a message to Grandma” or “I’m having a chat with Aunt Sarah.” Tell them that even though you are on the computer, you are interacting with another real person.
  • Skip the scary predator talk for now. “Five-year-olds are still very grounded in fantasy.” Stick to games and sites geared toward your child’s age group. When they’re between 7 to 9, you can introduce worldlier topics.
  • Find a filtering program.  Norton offers a free parental control tools that will control what your child can see online, and that might ease your mind. Download it here. You can upgrade to a paid version if you feel your kids need more oversight.
  • Don’t take it for granted. Just because iPhones and tablets and laptops are everywhere — and our kids take to them in a flash — we tend to think kids will just figure it out on their own. But just like we teach them to look both ways when crossing the street, we need to give them the tools they need to be safe online.